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Some experts say that the temporary absence of popular boy group BTS is one of the biggest reasons.

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“K-pop is still enjoying its heyday right now, as evidenced by massive album sales and YouTube views,” says music critic Kim Do-heon. “But the K-pop industry should fully prepare for the future to avoid being dethroned by other genres.

“If it continues to experiment and broaden its horizons further to different fields like the metaverse, it will be able to gain more traction as time goes by.”

Bang Si-hyuk founded BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment. Photo: Hybe

Although many people compare K-pop to J-pop, they are different, Kim says. J-pop’s peak came in the 1990s, thanks to the emergence of prominent stars like rock band X-Japan.

“J-pop relied heavily on Japanese fans, but K-pop has amassed fans across the globe by utilising social media platforms,” Kim explains. “The two were born different and have walked different paths to date.”

In 2021, K-pop generated a whopping 7.8 billion tweets on Twitter, while a host of K-pop music videos by groups like BTS and Blackpink have garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube.

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However, like J-pop, K-pop is not yet mainstream in the US – the largest recorded- music market in the world. Lee Hye-jin, a clinical assistant professor of communication at the University of Southern California (USC) in the US, says despite focused fans that help to drive album sales, K-pop still lacks general popularity.

“A comparatively small number of streams is a testament to K-pop’s lack of general popularity,” Lee says. “When I teach a course on pop culture or media, only about 40 per cent of them show interest in K-pop.”

Echoing this sentiment is Choi Joo-yeon, a K-pop fan in her 20s who says most of the fourth-generation K-pop acts – especially boy bands – are not well known to the general public even in Korea. The term fourth-generation group is often used to refer to acts that debuted in 2018 or later.

“It appears to me that they are living in their own world occupied only by their fans,” Choi says.

Park Ji-won is the CEO of Hybe. Photo: Hybe
When it comes to K-pop’s future in the US, Lee at USC says that BTS and Blackpink – the two biggest K-pop acts at the moment – are the “determining factors”.

“Whether all BTS members will be able to reunite in 2025 [as Hybe said], and whether all four members of K-pop girl group Blackpink will renew their contracts with their record label YG Entertainment to continue their group activity are the two major issues that can drop hints about the near future of K-pop in the US,” she says.

“All eyes of Koreans are currently fixed on the possible collaboration of [entertainment giants] Hybe and SM. But this team-up is less likely to have an overarching impact on the popularity of K-pop in the US market right now, although it may have an influence in the long run.”

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Hybe is currently engaged in a tug of war with tech behemoth Kakao – the second-largest shareholder – over management control over SM.

“What matters more than the Hybe-Kakao battle is the cultural landscape of the US market in the future,” Lee adds. “How the musical tastes of the US listeners will shift and how different social media platforms will function may decide the future of K-pop.

“These days, it is even challenging for US singers to win the hearts of the general public, so for K-pop stars, the task is going to be even more daunting.”

Lee Soo-man is the founder of SM Entertainment. Photo: SM Entertainment

Lee believes K-pop should continue to set its sights on the Southeast Asian market. “Once a K-pop group builds a strong fandom in Southeast Asia and proves its international popularity with high views on YouTube or other quantitative accomplishments, it may be able to pique the interests of people in the US as well,” she says.

“They are not like Korean fans, who just want their singers to stay away from trouble and pay attention to their music. I think these differences should be meticulously considered for K-pop to further raise its profile on the international stage.”

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Kim, the music critic, adds that K-pop management companies have to take better care of their idol trainees and develop a more advanced system to incubate them.

“They need a system that can help idol trainees become talented and independent artists,” Kim says. “Many people still point out that K-pop agencies have too much control over their singers [in terms of music and their personal lives].”

K-pop labels, indeed, have long been noted for “babysitting” their singers regardless of their age. Most produce music and craft choreography for their stars, while imposing a dating ban or other forms of restrictions that are rarely witnessed in the entertainment industry of other countries. These practices have prompted some critics to call them “puppets”.

“They may have to pour a lot of effort into bringing a meaningful change and overcome prejudice,” Kim says.

Kim Han-sol, a K-pop fan in her 20s, adds, “As a long-time K-pop fan, I have frequently felt that the K-pop universe is more about companies than artists and fans. I think the focus should be shifted in the right direction, so that our singers can shine more on stage.”

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